4 Chapter 4: Enlightenment Philosophy: John Locke

This chapter introduces students to the educational philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704). As is the case with most philosophers, John Locke was writing in response to ideas published by former philosophers. In this case, Locke’s most famous works, his treatises on government, were a response to Thomas Hobbes’s political theory as presented in his famous Leviathan, published in 1651. Hobbes advocated the value of a benevolent monarchy, hence the leviathan, in governing society. Because Hobbes believed that individuals were primarily self-seeking and potentially violent if left free, they would be willing to enter into a social contract to protect their lives. Due to Hobbes’s view of human nature, he argued that individuals would agree to contract with a benevolent monarch to govern and protect society.

Locke, on the other hand, who believed that human nature was sufficiently rational to develop representative government, believed that individuals would agree to a social contract that guaranteed representative government. Based on his theory of natural rights, Locke believed representative government to be ideal in protecting individuals and their property. In other words, since Locke viewed all individuals to be naturally free, equal and capable of moral reasoning, he advocated limited self-government and majority rule as the best way to protect natural rights. Likewise, Locke gave significantly less authority and responsibility to government than did Hobbes, and he made the argument that citizens could revoke their social contract if government repeatedly abused its authority.

Locke was an empiricist who believed that all knowledge, including simple and complex ideas, ultimately relied on sense experience. Opposing Plato’s eternal Forms and Aristotle’s teleological theories, Locke believed that the mind was blank at birth (tabula rasa) and through continual experiences children would move from simple ideas to more complex ideas and the ability to morally reason. Locke’s epistemological view contributed to his views on education, of course, and he supported home education, viewing parents as the best guarantors of their children’s educational needs. Locke’s fear of powerful government caused him to oppose public schooling (except for educational provisions for the poor).

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Understand Locke’s theoretical foundation for representative government and social contract theory.
  • Articulate Locke’s emphasis on natural rights, the state of nature, and property.
  • Understand Locke’s idea of negative liberty.
  • Articulate Locke’s empirical approach to knowledge.
  • Articulate Locke’s plans for education of youth.
  • Recognize criticisms of and inconsistencies in Locke’s educational philosophy and his theory of representative government.
  • Distinguish differences among Plato, Aristotle, and Locke’s theories.


Part 1, Chapter 4 Preface to Readings

Like many philosophers of his day, Locke’s thinking was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is understood as consisting of three major events. First, the Renaissance (1500-1688) characterized a resurgence of appreciation for classical learning exemplified by ancient Greek and Rome. Humanism, the notion that human beings, as opposed to relying on divine intervention as was often the case during the Middle Ages, are responsible for human affairs. Humanism celebrated Man’s reason and creativity, as well as Man’s ability to improve his condition without supernatural intervention. Man was now responsible for progress, which required action, courage, and a sense of self-worth. The invention of printing during this period also created the demand for and opened opportunities to knowledge formerly available to the Church and the elite.

Second, the Protestant Reformation (1517) challenged and fractured the Catholic Church’s hegemony in religious matter. Protestantism democratized religion through the development of multiple sects and denomination and most importantly supporting the idea of individual (as opposed to authoritarian) interpretation of the Bible. This individualism encouraged individual literacy among groups that were formerly illiterate, beginning an increased demand for education.

Third, scientific discoveries by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, to name a few, significantly altered understanding of nature and the cosmos. With the use of new scientific instruments and the investigations they enabled, scientists were able to understand new paradigms that ruptured traditional concepts of nature and our place in it. Science and reason increasingly displaced religious interpretations and justifications of the natural world, which paralleled the emergence of humanism. Man was now perceived as having the capacity to reason and to determine his own potential, and to influence his world without relying on spiritual intervention or ecclesiastical authority. It is understandable how the Enlightenment impacted new ideas about politics, history, philosophy, and education.

Locke’s Ideas on Knowledge and Education

While Locke was devoutly religious, he did not believe that humans were born with a hidden knowledge or preconceptions that had to be discovered over time, such as Plato’s ideal Forms or Aristotle’s telos. Rather, Locke believed that children were born with no knowledge, apparent or hidden, but rather with a blank mind (tabula rasa). Only experience with the natural world would imprint knowledge onto the mind. This is known as empiricism, the belief that we come to know the world around us through sense experience. The notion that children passively absorb knowledge through the senses contributed to the idea that they were malleable. In other words, external educational techniques and stimuli could be utilized to develop children’s ability to morally reason and to conform to appropriate social expectations. Developmentally, Locke believed that sense experience provided young children with simple ideas related to natural objects, the ability to learn differences in temperature, sounds, textures, and so forth, and that over time children would store significantly sufficient information and enable their ability to form complex ideas, including moral reasoning. Moral reasoning was particularly important for Locke since he believed that this more complex level of thinking was necessary (and achievable) by adulthood, which would contribute to a well-ordered society.

Locke published his Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693. He provides information about his specific learning theories and styles, including but not limited to child-centered education, the importance of parental or home education, and his opposition to public and private schooling (due largely to his trepidation over excessive government power).

Locke’s Political Theory

First, it is important to understand what Locke was responding to in his treatises on government. Thomas Hobbes published his Leviathan in 1651 providing a justification for executive power. Hobbes premised his arguments on the hypothetical state of nature. In this state, which is prior to the development of civil government, human beings are completely free. Hobbes also held that human beings were selfish and self-seeking, making them prone to violence and cruelty. Without law and order, Hobbes concluded that the state of nature would resemble anarchy and that “the life of man [would be] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Therefore, Hobbes concluded that in order to remove themselves from a state of war and to enjoy the benefits of peace, individuals would be willing to give up their complete freedom (and vulnerability) and agree to a form of government wherein complete authority would be given to a sovereign power or monarch. Since this contract (or covenant) will not change human nature, Hobbes gives the sovereign complete authority in maintaining order. Safety is predicated on the necessity of obedience to absolute power. The sovereign, expected primarily to maintain peace, according to the contract, has an interest in limited governance, albeit absolute authority. The sovereign also exercises complete authority over religious matters.

In response to Hobbes, Locke presents a more generous view of human nature and likewise supports representative government. Locke utilizes the same hypothetical state of nature when setting up his argument. However, seeing human beings as rational creatures, he does not view the state of nature as violent. Nevertheless, he does conclude that individuals in the state of nature, in order to protect their lives, liberties, and property, will agree to a social contract limiting government power. Because he views individuals more positively, Locke supports representation and rotation in public office, majority rule, and giving ultimate authority to the people. If government abuses its powers repeatedly, Locke radically concludes that citizens can revoke or dissolve the government and replace it with another. Locke’s fear of centralized power also caused him to support a negative form of liberty, meaning a very limited government or a government that is restricted to purely public matters and protecting lives, liberties, and property. His fear of despotic government also caused him to support home schooling. He reluctantly agreed that the government should provide basic education to poor children, but his education plan was developed with the gentry or upper class in mind.

Questions to Consider

  • If parents have exclusive authority over their children’s education, how likely is it that they will learn about perspectives different from their own?
  • Locke prioritizes the moral freedom of individual adults. How is this method of education going to develop such moral freedom?
  • How will this kind of insular education develop respect for the moral freedom of others who are different?
  • What if parents choose to teach their children to be racists or xenophobic?
  • If minority families (defined in various ways) teach their children according to their cultural backgrounds, how will they be impacted in the broader society, particularly in one that values negative liberty?
  • Should the state exercise any reasonable responsibility over children’s education?
  • Why does Locke fear government schooling?


Locke, John. (1988). Two Treatises of Government. Laslett, Peter (Ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. (1983). A Letter Concerning Toleration. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Locke, John. (1959). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: In Two Volumes. Fraser, Alexander

Campbell (Ed.). New York: Dover Publications.

Tannenbaum, Donald G., and Schultz, David. (1988). Inventors of Ideas: An Introduction to Western Political Philosophy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.


After reading Locke’s work, sited above, have students discuss how Locke’s views on education relate to or parallel his views on government.

Have students discuss Locke’s Letter on Toleration and how this work influenced Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on the separation of church and state.

External Readings & Resources